FROM THE FRONTLINES


The following are reports by Philadelphia teachers who have participated in the Brain and Behavior Institute at Bryn Mawr College. They reflect ongoing efforts to make productive use in the classroom of increasing understanding of brain function in relation to behavior.

TOM WITKOWSKI, SPRING, 1997

THE SITUATION

For the 1996-97 academic year at Central High School in Philadelphia I was teaching an elective course in genetics to students who had successfully completed a course in general biology. The class consisted of nine 10th grade students, two 11th grade students, and nineteen 12th grade students. Teaching such a course requires considerable "fleshing out" in order to make it meaningful for an entire year without becoming exceedingly pedantic for tenth and eleventh grade students. The problem lies not in the fact that there is not enough relevant material for an entire one year genetics course, but rather in maintaining student interest when the material seems arcane.

In the past, in order to avoid student apathy, I strove to have each student make an intellectual investment in the course. I did this by having the students work individually or in pairs on those aspects of genetics where their interest had already been piqued, usually because of their or their family's medical history. Most students developed a richer understanding of their particular areas of interest commensurate with their understanding of the broader topic of genetics. The desire for a better understanding of a specific problem or for an answer to a specific question provided the incentive for gaining a more global understanding of genetics and its relationship to human behavior. This personal deductive process of expanding from a specific area of interest to the general concept worked concurrently with the more traditional inductive teacher/learner approach.

As expected the search for answers to particular questions lead to new questions, new answers, and new interests in related areas. Two genetics related fields held the greatest interest for my students and provided incentive throughout the year.

BIOETHICS DEBATES

Many of my students became interested in the field of bioethics. That is the societal and moral implications of new biological technologies. They were absorbed by hypothetical bioethical questions similar to those real issues they will soon be required to face.

Many of them came to the issues with firmly fixed ideas and attitudes. Others were open-minded. Unfortunately neither group seemed to be willing or able to find authoritative arguments on both sides of the issue they were considering. As expected most printed and Internet sources referenced only those sources which supported one viewpoint. The result was that some students' attitudes became more firmly fixed, while others' developed opinions after considering only half of the evidence. My job as a teacher became more difficult in that I had to open or reopen their now closed minds. Moreover, I often couldn't find materials supporting both sides of the argument.

Searching for a solution to this dilemma I came across a book entitled Genetic Engineering, Opposing Viewpoints; David Bender & Bruno Leone, Series Editors; Carol Wekesser, Book Editor. This was from the Opposing Viewpoints Series, published by Greenhaven Press, Inc., San Diego, CA. Having reviewed this book I believed it would prove to be an adequate solution to the aforementioned problem since it presents authoritative balanced arguments on controversial genetics issues which have been of interest to my students. I was able to purchase a class set of this book.

Twice during the year I assigned the students, working in pairs the task of presenting an argument in favor of one of the sides of a bioethical issue, while another pair of students was assigned the task of presenting an opposing argument. Each pair of students was armed with both sides of the argument as presented in the book aforementioned book, and each pair was strongly urged (required) to augment this with personally researched material. Students were also encouraged to make use of audiovisuals in their presentations. Rehearsed opening arguments by each side were to last fifteen minutes, followed by a five minute rebuttal by each side. Then came a short question/answer session, which was followed by a poll of the entire class. The success of this activity was evidenced by the fact that I was overwhelmed with requests for possible sources of information and help with AV; by the fact that it was difficult to enforce the time limits; and by the fact that the closing question/answer/voting portion often evolved into heated informal debates with students often ignoring the bell for the change of classes. These difficulties have made it apparent that a one day per issue arrangement was insufficient, and that more lead time was necessary for the preparation of AV materials. I also have to stress even more strongly the need for dress rehearsals as many of the students while familiar with the content of their arguments simply read their presentations, and had difficulty integrating it with their audio visuals.

SELF SCORING IQ TESTS

Another large group of my students became interested in the Nature/Nurture argument of intelligence. They became particularly fascinated with IQ testing and IQ tests. I was able to provide them with a few sample IQ questions from which we were able to simulate an IQ test. This was satisfactory, but an air of phoniness made the exercise less meaningful than it could have been. One of my students gave me a copy of the SELF SCORING IQ TESTS booklet by Victor Serebriakoff. After using one half of the test with a small group of my students at the end of the 1995-97 school year I felt we had a much more worthwhile exercise. The test consists of two parts each having three half hour sessions; verbal, mathematics, and spatial relationships. To administer the entire test requires six days, but meaningful data and experience can be gained by using either of the two parts.

This year I set out to make use of these tests as an integrated series of exercises. I administered all six portions of the test on six consecutive days. On the day before testing I told the students this would be an ungraded exercise from which they would gain insight into IQ testing, and perhaps some degree of self knowledge. I stressed that they should not take the results too seriously since I was not an experienced IQ test administrator and was not expert on the validity of these tests. I further stressed that our primary goal was to more learn about the test and the testing process rather than about ourselves as test subjects. The preparation for testing for the next three days required about 15 minutes per day in order to insure that all students understood how to respond to the various and unfamiliar types of questions. During these first three days of testing there was hardly enough time to collect papers, let alone have any discussion. During the next three days, now that the students had become familiar with the structure and format of each type of test, we were able to devote some time to discussing the rationale and validity of the types of questions being asked. On the day after we completed the tests the students took about twenty minutes to grade their papers, and calculate their scores in terms of IQ.

While we were evaluating the test and testing process I reemphasized the danger in placing too much importance on the scores, lest some students self image be harmed. Fortunately my students were seemingly able to view this testing process in the appropriate light. The SELF SCORING IQ TEST booklets are available from Barnes & Noble Books at $4.95 each. A class set of 34 copies would cost $168.30. The test booklet also comes as a sturdily bound paper back, has a copyright date of 1996, and should have a class use life span of more than five years.

HOW THE STUDENTS FELT

At the end of this year (last week) I asked each of my students to list two things they disliked about the course, two things they liked about the course, and two things they would change if they could. Most included the bioethics debates and IQ testing among the things they liked. Many saying that even though it had been a lot of work, they had learned more preparing for a debate than they would have studying for a test. Interestingly, several said they would make changes the logistics of the debates in ways similar to those I've mentioned above. No students listed either the debates or IQ testing among the things they disliked.

Thomas J. Witkowski,
Genetics, Physics, & Chemistry teacher
Central High School


Mitch Schwartz, Spring, 1997

Since the Brain and Behavior Institute, I've taken a CD-ROM mini-course at my school to learn how to look up items from computerized reference materials and to cut and paste and print them. I've used these newly acquired skills to teach my students how to do this with their home computers.

More writing is being done on computers by my students and I've been able to practice at home to learn what they're doing when they write their papers. For instance, I've learned through bitter experience that Spellcheck doesn't automatically alert one to misspelled words.

One of the novels we read in my English class is Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, a story about a retarded adult who undergoes brain surgery to increase his intelligence to genius level. The novel raises many questions about the way the brain operates and the nature of intelligence in humans and in animals. I find that I am better able to guide my students through discussions of these questions, and, sometimes, to attempt to answer them.

I invited Dr. Grobstein of the Brain and Behavior Institute to come to answer questions about the novel and an interesting thing happened. In one class I prepared some qustions raised by the novel and "planted" students to ask them. In another class I let the students interact more freely with their guest. The second class had a more lively and broader-ranging discussion and, I think, more fun. It was my plan to videotape Dr. Grobstein's visist to show to other classes later in the day, but there were technical difficulties (part of my English curriculum involved video work). As a result, we will have to invite Dr. Grobstein back, live, for a repeat performance. I feel that his visit gave my students a variety of positive experiences; they were able to question an expert in a scientific field not usually available to middle school students, they got the chance to inspect a real, live college professor, and they learned a lot about their own brains.

The Nineties has its own language of slang, as all eras do, but the opportunity to work with my own computer has increased my ability to use cybernetic metaphors in the classroom. I can point out to my students differences between learning that adds files and that which adds to operations.

Familiarity with computer terminology has also enable me to try some interesting writing strategies with my students. An example of this occurred when we had a schoolwide writing assessment project for which each student at Wilson was required to write a response to a "prompt" about changing three things in our school. As their Egnlish teachers, I wanted my kids to show organizational clarity and to address one item of change at a time. I instructed them to stick to one subject at a time in their rought copy, but that, if an idea occurred to them for an earlier topic, then they could write the intruding ideas in a margin and draw a box around it and number it. They could then go on and, when it came time to write their good copy, thy could find their "saved" tidbits and include them where they'd do the most good.

I can now communicate by email with friends and family members. I recruited colleagues for help in organizing one of our BrainBehaviorLink meetings at Wilson this year by email. I can surf the Internet for maps and materials to use with my English classes and simply to broaden my own horizons. Recently I shared a page of computer-based joks with my students which a niece sent me by email.

I have grown as a teacher and have increased my computer literacy through my continuing association the Brain and Behavior Institute and by experimenting with my own computer at home and with the ones at school. When new technology is introduced to me, such as the new multimedia projector which Dr. Grobstein brought to Wilson, I can react with interest instead of apprehension. I can now see the possibilities ...

Mitch Schwartz
English teacher
Wilson Middle School

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